When Geraldine Giordano started classes at Anne Arundel Community College, the native of Colombia spoke little English.

On her way to earning her associate’s degree in business and administration, she took nine courses in English, progressing to reading and writing academic papers in her second language.

But those classes earned her no credits toward her degree.

“I think about all these classes I took, and I did not get credit for it,” said Giordano, now studying business and finance at Towson University.

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Classes for English language learners exist in a confusing area in Maryland’s higher education system. They’re academically rigorous — particularly the advanced courses — and cost just as much as credit-bearing courses. But they don’t count for credit.

Students and instructors are hoping state lawmakers will pass a bill that would allow community colleges to grant academic credit for the English classes, either as world language courses akin to an English speaker taking Spanish or as humanities courses.

It’s called the Credit for All Language Learning Act, or CALL Act.

“It would help students to graduate sooner,” said Amelia Yongue, who teaches at Howard Community College. “They already pay for these courses, so they would be able to take these courses and earn the credits they deserve. These courses definitely prepare them for future courses and careers.”

A grassroots group made largely of students and teachers has taken their advocacy to Annapolis. They enlisted Del. Jared Solomon of Montgomery County and Sen. Malcolm Augustine and Sen. James Rosapepe, both from Prince George’s County, to sponsor the CALL Act. They spent one night last week criss-crossing the halls of the House of Delegates and Senate office buildings, pressing their case to lawmakers in private meetings.

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This week, they’ll testify in front of committees, a public effort to convince senators and delegates that the change is worthwhile.

To be clear, the supporters say, these courses are not the continuing education English courses intended to help people brush up on their basic English skills or gain enough proficiency to get a job. These courses cover grammar, reading, writing and making presentations.

Owen Silverman Andrews, who teaches at Anne Arundel Community College, says his classes are “equivalent, if not more advanced” than introductory classes for English speakers learning another language. Often, students take English language classes alongside classes in their major.

“Our argument is these students are taking college-level courses already. We need to equitably value the courses they are taking,” he said.

Andrews said he sees students who become frustrated after pouring their efforts into English courses, doing challenging academic work, but still seeing a long path ahead toward earning their associate’s degree. Or they might skip taking the English classes, and end up struggling in their other academic courses.

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Geraldine Giordano, who came to the United States from Colombia, earned an associate's degree at Anne Arundel Community College and now studies business and finance at Towson University. She's supporting the Credit for All Language Learners Act at the Maryland General Assembly.
Geraldine Giordano majors in business and finance at Towson University, after taking nine English language learner courses at Anne Arundel Community College while working on an associate's degree. She's supporting the Credit for All Language Learners Act in the Maryland General Assembly. (Courtesy of Geraldine Giordano)

Community college students, particularly immigrants, often have multiple pressures on their time and money, needing to work and care for their families alongside their classes. Earning no credit for their academic work can be a disincentive.

Solomon said that any proposals that make it more affordable to complete higher education programs “without watering down standards” is critical.

“We know this population is growing,” said Solomon, a Democrat. “How do we make it so those folks are successful in higher education and want to stay in Maryland?”

Augustine, also a Democrat, said the legislation will help remove a barrier that immigrant students face in their education journey. “We want to make sure that everyone is able to reach their full potential,” he said.

Thuta, an asylee from Myanmar who asked to be identified only by his first name, spent one semester at Anne Arundel Community College, taking three courses covering reading, writing and listening.

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“If I get credits from those classes, it would be nine credits — it’s a lot,” said Thuta, who is working toward a computer science degree with hopes of transferring to a university.

“If students finally get a chance to get credits from ESOL classes, I think they will be more motivated to keep learning,” he said.

The CALL Act, if passed, comes with effectively a zero-dollar cost to the state. Students are already taking and paying for the courses, and awarding credit would be an administrative matter that could be handled within existing resources, according to a nonpartisan analysis.

Supporters say the CALL Act would actually be more cost effective, as students would earn their degrees a little more quickly — whether they’re paying out of pocket, with financial aid or with scholarships, they’d save money by taking fewer courses.

Solomon said he expects little opposition to the CALL Act, though there could be details to be ironed out between the community colleges and the state universities that accept transfer students. He’s hopeful the bill will pass this year, the first year it’s been introduced.

“Everybody’s working in good faith,” he said. “We’ve just got to make sure the language is correct.”